‘Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio?’: Film Review | Santa Barbara 2017

Where Have You Gone Still - H 2017
Courtesy of Where Have You Gone Movie

Where Have You Gone Still - H 2017

An engaging look at re-finding your bliss, punchlines included.

Twenty years after stepping away from his stand-up career, a TV writer aims to give it another shot, and seeks the advice of some of the now-famous friends he came up with on the comedy-club circuit, among them Larry David, Susie Essman and Colin Quinn.

Like Robert De Niro’s character in The Comedian, Lou DiMaggio is a middle-aged comic eyeing a comeback. But that’s where the similarities end. No insult comic, DiMaggio is as affable as the fictional comedian is cantankerous. And as Brad Kuhlman’s documentary portrait Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio? makes clear, he’s exceptionally openhearted about why a second chance at the mic matters so much to him. To prepare himself for the big leap back onstage, DiMaggio talks to friends from the New York comedy scene of the ’80s, many of them now household names. Their conversations, filled with smart and spirited observations about showbiz and the business of life, are the heart of this engaging film, and a delight.

The particular challenges of the stand-up life are explored in greater depth in the soon-to-be-released Dying Laughing and in the 2002 Jerry Seinfeld doc Comedian, but the intimacy of Kuhlman’s film has its own rewards. With his experience as a producer of nonfiction TV, the first-time director makes the most of the access that his subject granted him. He strikes the right balance between talking-head interviews, DiMaggio’s wisdom-seeking mission and glances back at his stand-up heyday, all of it crisply edited by Lindsay Ljungkull.

For DiMaggio (no relation to the baseball great), there’s urgency in his awareness that, when he turned his back on the comedy stage in the late ’90s, he left behind an essential part of who he is. Whether his conviction is a matter of midlife clarity, misty-eyed nostalgia or wishful thinking is the crux of the matter. As he embarks on his gutsy quest, he’s no less vulnerable for being self-aware. Laying it on the line, DiMaggio declares that to be able to call himself a comic again would amount to nothing less than getting his “life back” — an idea that his wife, actress Loretta Fox, regards with skepticism, tempering her support with words of caution.

By all accounts he was a natural — “confident, but not in a dick way,” according to Colin Quinn. Snippets of DiMaggio’s 1987 act, as a regular at Catch a Rising Star, the era’s holy grail of the New York comedy scene, reveal an assured conversational style for his observational humor and an easy rapport with the audience. But though Dennis Miller warned him not to abandon stand-up after he moved to the West Coast to pursue acting opportunities (there would be national commercials, guest spots on shows including Seinfeld and L.A. Law), DiMaggio “just sorta let it go,” shifting his energies to writing for television.

Howie Mandel, talking with him on a TV-show set, can’t understand why he walked away from the stage. It’s the only place Mandel says he feels comfortable, a sentiment echoed by Larry David, who at the time of his conversation with DiMaggio had just done his first stand-up routine in 15 years. David and DiMaggio reminisce fondly about their New York days, while Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin offers a bracing dose of the here and now. As to the comedy world’s attitude toward DiMaggio’s pending comeback, he puts it plainly, in a tough-love gesture of protection: “Nobody cares.” Another Curb castmember, Susie Essman, reiterates the theme of rejection and failure as an innate part of the comic’s life.

In New York, DiMaggio catches up with more Catch a Rising Star vets, capturing what was probably the last recorded interview with Kevin Meaney, who died at age 60 not long after their afternoon sojourn through old stomping grounds. At the Friars Club, he sits down with Richard Belzer and Jim Vallely, who offer opposing views on one of the burning questions for the returning performer: the age factor, and how to relate to millennial audiences. Like much of DiMaggio’s story, it’s an anxiety that resonates not just for showbiz practitioners but for middle age in general, and it plays out in all its awkward glory when he takes the stage at last, before a handful of young’uns at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood.

Kuhlman and DiMaggio, who serves as an executive producer, wrap up the pic with a small overload of platitudes. The life lessons about finding your passion, the lure of halcyon days and the need to keep moving forward are fully felt — there’s no need to reiterate them in affirmations.

But notwithstanding the unnecessary summations, DiMaggio’s soul-searching adventure is persuasively hopeful and never sugarcoated. Kuhlman lets the undercurrents — questions about self-sabotage, and the ways we second-guess ourselves — course through the events’ unforced mix of yearning and deadpan humor.

Alone in his modest digs, DiMaggio lets the director record him as he sifts through items he’d long ago put in storage: his ’80s-era notebooks, a “time capsule” of drug paraphernalia, the writing Emmy he won for Win Ben Stein’s Money. Talking with friends he hasn’t seen in years, the distance between them — much of it, anyway — evaporates in laughter and shared experiences. One of his summing-up statements reverberates far more powerfully than the others: “These are my people, and I’ve missed them so badly.”

Production companies: Ping Pong Productions, Brad Kuhlman Productions
With: Lou DiMaggio, Larry David, Ray Romano, Joy Behar, Jeff Garlin, Richard Belzer, Colin Quinn, Susie Essman, Howie Mandel, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Vallely, Jon Manfrellotti, Rick Newman, Rebecca Corry, Loretta Fox

Director: Brad Kuhlman
Producers: Wendy Kuhlman, Allison Gorelik
Executive producers: Brad Kuhlman, Lou DiMaggio
Directors of photography: Evan B. Stone, Michael Hauer, Doug Cheney, Jason Hafer, Brian Weed, Mike Sullivan
Editor: Lindsay Ljungkull
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Sales: APA Agency

75 minutes